When it comes to getting great pickups on a budget, there are a few ways to do things, one of those ways is to shop the used market. I have probably purchased 70-80 used pickups over the years not to mention guitars but we will leave guitars for another post.
The used pickup market is absolutely massive. There are a number of places to find great used deals on all the top models and brands you could could ever want. Some products are available readily in used condition all the time, some take a little more searching for and then there are a rare few gems that take patience and diligence to find and purchase inside your budget.
Remember, GAS is an epidemic and the used market runs on it so someone somewhere will eventually sell the item you really want. In the case of trends, when one passes, the market floods and it can be much easier to find that gear you once coveted deeply while the trend was flourishing.
Before you start to buy used gear confidently, know the warning signs to look for and also know what’s worth what. When making offers, don’t lowball, it’s annoying and you look bad. Simply ask the seller what the lowest price they could let it go for while still feeling good about the sale. If the price they give you isn’t low enough, move on. Haggling is only effective when it’s done right and within a readable window based on the tactics and behavior of the seller. When selling, be honest and detailed in the ads, ship quickly and price stuff properly.
A lot of times even minor cosmetic blemishes can take the price on used gear way down and pickups are no different. If you aren’t picky about color or cosmetic condition, you will find a great deal very quickly or you can be picky, patient and keep your eyes peeled. Even heavy cosmetic wear on a pickup doesn’t matter at all as long as the guts inside are in good shape. What you need to be concerned with is how much wire is left on the pickup, if it tests properly with a multi meter, if the screw holes have been drilled out or not for direct mounting.
One pickup that is consistently available on the used market on even the tightest budget is the EMG 81. It’s a legendary pickup that I have seen on used for as little as $15USD but are most often available between $30-50 in both the solderless and old-school versions. Passive options like Seymour Duncan JB and Invader are usually available in the $40-60USD range.
Before getting into the various means to acquire used pickups, let’s go over a few tips and things to look for / ask about. We will also share these along the way.
- Has the pickup been drilled out for direct mounting? if so, it will not be able to be mounted a pickup ring unless the holes are re-threaded. However, if you are looking for a pickup to direct mount, you can find even better deals as the holes being drilled out impacts the resale value drastically. This can be used in negotiating.
- NO STOCK PHOTOS! If an ad has a stock photo, don’t bother with the item and if you are selling, don’t be lazy, take a damn picture.
- How much lead / wire is left on the pickup and how long is the distance that wire needs to travel on your guitar. Remember, the neck pickup will need more lead / wire. If you know how to neatly extend your own pickup leads, you can find some even better deals.
- If it’s been in a smoking household and you don’t smoke, you don’t want it, move on to another ad. If you buy it and it shows up smelling like smoke, no.. that smell doesn’t come out, send it back.
- Be careful with B-Stock / Refurbished / Factory Second type ads. Be sure to ask the seller exactly what the blemish or problem with the instrument is/was and when it arrives, either inspect yourself of have someone experienced look at it. There are a lot of snake sales people selling these products so beware.
The first place I look to for used gear is always and constantly Reverb. If you are a musician and you haven’t been to Reverb before, I am sorry in advance for the Pandora’s box I’ve just opened for you. It’s the best, safest and most reliable way to buy and sell used music gear. The gear selection is endless and there’s not much you can’t find on there. Do away with Ebay or at least move it down your options list. Here you can find tens of thousands of used pickups from $5 to over $1000 in every make, model, color, style and beyond. It’s literally a pickup buffet.
Reverb also has an amazing filter system that can get really specific. Just search for something like “bridge humbucker” or “EMG 81” etc and when the results come up, if you are on web, there’s a very clearly marked used tab. If you are on mobile, you’ll select the drop down menu in the Reverb app, select “condition” and then “used”. Hit “apply” and you will have your list. From there you can filter things according to a specific budget, price low to high and other options that can really use a fine-tooth comb to find the hidden gems.
If a bad deal happens, just report it and Reverb staff are all over it like a SWAT team. They can read your messages to the other party as well so make sure you are on the level and stay cool if something gets messed up. If you are selling, take as many pictures of the item as possible with a paper dated the day you ship the item out.
Another option is the local used market. Sites like Craigslist, Kijiji and other “Buy & Sell” type services can be handy for finding gear at crazy cheap prices. Another upside of these is no shipping fees or wait time. On the downside, there’s zero security. If you buy a fake / copy, there’s no safety net, if you unknowingly buy stolen gear that is later taken from you by the police, you are not reimbursed. My good deals far outweigh the bad in this area but if you are looking at a piece of pricey gear, either have it looked at by someone with experience or do your research. Check the serial, look up info on fakes and do your due diligence.
- Find a neutral meeting spot, a local music store is often a good spot because normally someone there will be cool having a look at the instrument for you (especially if you buy strings of some picks to show your thanks for their time)
- Know your stuff going into any deal. Research the item you are buying to a high degree so that you can walk into things with confidence. Some sellers count on inexperience and naivety in buyers, don’t be a doormat.
- If you buy pickups locally, look up the pickup’s resistance on the company website and either write it down or memorize it. Then bring a multi meter to the exchange and test it quickly to make sure it reads exact or close to the specs. This test takes two seconds and if the reading is way off the mark, you don’t want it.
Another side of the local used market could be music stores that deal in used gear and pawn shops. Not every music store deals in used gear and not every pawn shop will have more than a Behringer
- Whatever they tell you their bottom dollar is, they will probably still drop it a little more if you offer to pay in cash on-site, know your limit here, read the situation because if you lowball, you might not get great treatment in future deals with the shop.
- NEVER go in thinking you are going to pull a fast one on anyone. Trust me, they know exactly what things are worth, how to spot fakes and exactly where/how to look for hidden damages. You won’t be pulling off the deal of the century unless…
- One way to get a really good deal on a used item at a pawn or used music shop is to be patient. Visit the store often and keep tabs on the item. Anything that’s been there 6+ months is going to either be marked down on the tag or in the store’s internal system for when they negotiate. Ask them how long they’ve had the item to see where they stand on your “full-of-crap-o-meter”.
- On a similar note, sometimes putting what you have on you in cash into the equation in a sincere manner can have an honorable effect on the scenario.
- As mentioned before, going in with a multi-meter and knowledge under your belt can protect you from bad deals. Most music stores have pretty honest values but with pawn shops, not everything is always on the level. Go in equipped or you may get ripped off.
- You can sometimes bring down the cost of the gear you want by offering up something in trade to offset the value. Any gear you no longer use can help you acquire new gear but don’t get screwed. If you go in looking desperate, they may lowball you so know the used value of the gear in it’s present condition. You can expect an offer of about half that which you should be able to haggle up a pinch.
FORUMS / FACEBOOK
Forum marketplaces and “buy/sell” groups are a good place to hunt for deals but it can be less secure. Mods/admins can usually help you out if a deal goes downhill but be sure to use a secure method of payment. Of course, I have acquired many a great deal this way with great results and zero issues but I would say if you are going to buy and sell on a forum, be a member there a while first, make sure everything is on the level and ensure that the admins / mods and community are involved when things go bad.
NEVER use any friends and family or gift option on PayPal or any method that has no security to it when dealing with complete strangers. I don’t care how many good deals and great feedback the user has, always keep the exchange of money secure. The forums and Facebook groups will not reimburse your losses if something goes sour.
- Don’t deal with anyone that has a really fake looking profile.
- Sometimes admins/mods or experienced / well known members of the groups and forums will act as intermediaries in a deal if you ask. These people will keep an eye on the deal to make sure it goes smoothly. This isn’t my favorite way to do things but it can help.
Amazon and Reverb have basically turned Ebay into the dirt mall or flea market. You can always find cheap parts and little things made in China that are great for cutting costs but most of the good music shops from Ebay operate more on Reverb these days with the superior customer service and additional security. There are still many deals to be found on Ebay if that’s what you prefer but it’s more of a last resort for me. Just my two cents on this one.
Trading is something a lot of pickup nerds can do to exchange products quickly and easily but you also need to protect yourself. Trades can happen on Reverb and they do have a policy concerning it that you should read before doing so. Local trades are super easy but, be sure to be safe and smart about it. Bring a multi meter with you to prove the quality of your pickup and then test the other. When you show up with a meter, the other party will know you know your stuff which inspires a more honest deal.
Know the MSRP of your item and the one you are trading for as well as how the item is priced used elsewhere based on various used conditions. This was you are more than capable of haggling based on experienced knowledge. Knowing your shit when you go into a deal also provides confidence because you just know no one can pull a fast one on you.
Sometimes to get what you want in a trade, if it’s something you want badly, you may have to “trade down” to get it. This means that when you find someone trading the exact pickup you want, to make sure you get it, you may have to offer something of slightly higher value. It is what it is really, you have to offset the bad with the good in this case.
- Be honest, a bad deal can spread further than you think.
- Always portray yourself as the type of seller that you appreciate as a buyer. This is a can’t miss formula.
- Know the USED value of what you are selling. No one cares what you (or your parents) paid for your guitar five years ago or even one year ago. What you need to know is how much your item is worth used in its current condition. An easy way to do this is to hit up Reverb and look for your item in used condition. If it’s not there, check Ebay and other options. Price your item according to your motivation to sell.
- Photograph all damage and wear for online sales. Even if you think it’s nothing, someone else might not and if it shows up looking as such, you’ll be refunding them and paying your gear’s return trip ticket.
- The moment you put something up for sale online it should be put away and not used while it’s up.
- If you sell something online, pack it like you are about to throw it out of a plane into a war zone because that’s basically what it goes through in shipping.
- If you do a lot of buying/selling online, keep packing materials handy and hang onto the more useful boxes/packing from other deals.
- Ship within 24 hours of being paid, if you need two days, Reverb allows for it but any more than that is pushing it.
In closing, used pickups are a really great way to help you get great tone on a really tight budget. Buying used + DIY installs also give guitarists and bass players a way to try a lot of different pickups without breaking the bank. Good luck in your search!